Wednesday 17 January 2018

Richard Sadlier: Lack of respect for puppet manager will cost Barca dear

Luis Enrique clearly has no authority over his club’s star players, says Richard Sadlier

'Luis Enrique clearly has no authority over his club’s star players'
'Luis Enrique clearly has no authority over his club’s star players'
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

I’ve been in dressing rooms where it was known by everyone that the manager wasn’t the one picking the team. There were a number of reasons for this, but we knew his hands were tied when it came to making big calls.

New signings arrived knowing the boss wasn’t the one who wanted them and team-mates left because people upstairs didn’t rate them. There’s a lot more to management than simply coaching the first-team players, but this particular manager’s input seemed limited to this aspect of the job.

It didn’t change how some players acted towards him. Team talks still had relevance and training was still important. Information on the opposition still needed to be heard, after all, but not everyone was fully supportive of what he was doing. Ranging from mild disrespect to blatant disdain, there were some players who couldn’t take him seriously. He had virtually no authority over them because they knew the realities of the position he was in.

Despite being top of La Liga and in the final of the Copa del Rey, all is far from well at Barcelona for coach Luis Enrique. Even with a 3-1 lead going into Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against PSG, questions persist about Enrique’s control within the dressing room and the level of respect he commands from the players.

“There are issues that remain in the locker room, but we have a coach who solves things,” said Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu last week. “The coach is always in charge in the locker room,” he added, but it’s impossible to imagine that’s the case in the Nou Camp these days.

At all levels of the game, a manager will be judged by his players from the moment he steps into the dressing room. Unlike observers from beyond the confines of the training ground, they don’t reserve their assessments until competitive games begin. They don’t rely solely on win percentages or league tables either. Spoofers can win matches as quick as top-class coaches can lose, but it’s more than results that players think of when making up their minds. 

Neymar reacted angrily last weekend when he was substituted against Sevilla. He made several gestures to Enrique and threw his boot to the ground when he sat on the bench. It’s why Bartomeu felt he had to speak out. Enrique dismissed it as “pettiness and nonsense” when it happened earlier in the season, but the Brazil captain isn’t the only one he needs to handle better.

In October, Lionel Messi appeared to ignore Enrique’s decision to take him off in the last 15 minutes of their game with Eibar. Enrique was clearly seen on camera calling Messi to the bench as a substitute was preparing to go on, but the Argentina captain turned his back and walked away and stayed on the field. Luis Suarez also appeared to undermine Enrique by claiming his first start on the wing this season was the result of a decision he and Messi made to switch positions. Enrique responded sarcastically by saying players like to take credit when things go well, but blame the manager when they go badly. Either way, it’s hardly a sign that things are well between them.

This isn’t just about player power. It’s not about egos run wild. It’s not because the players are petulant, unprofessional, immature or insubordinate. There may be more than one reason or there might be no particular one, but it’s clear there is little respect for Enrique among Barcelona’s front three. It’s Enrique’s failing not to exert his authority over the squad, not a failing of the players who may believe he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

And just like the dressing rooms I was in, the longer people realise a manager doesn’t have control of the key decisions, the quicker his influence begins to dwindle. If the biggest players in a squad think strongly about an issue, it’s going to impact the minds of others. That’s the way football works. Barcelona have done remarkably well to get to this point of the season still competing on three fronts, but they’d do even better if they had a manager in control of his team.

And just because Barcelona are still in the hunt for the treble, that is not enough to say this issue is not one that will cost them dearly. No trophies have been won yet. Precedent and logic in football would suggest a dressing room that lacks respect for a manager would fail when it comes to the crunch. When you’ve got three players like Messi, Suarez and Neymar, though, you just might be able to defy that logic, for a short while at least.

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